Plants & Animals

Red-shouldered Hawk

While this hawk’s call may not be sweet, its flying skills are a treat to watch as it hunts a wide variety of prey.

The Red-Shoulderd Hawk (Bueteo lineatus) is one of my favorite Missouri raptors, not only for its beauty but its personality. If your property or favorite park has ever been host to one of these noisy hawks, especially during nesting season, you know what I’m talking about. The red shoulder’s call is a loud “kee-ah” that is as distinctive as the call of a blue jay. Once I walked right under a red-shouldered hawk that was perching on a low branch and it admonished me with a series of squawks that would make an Amazon parrot proud! Intrepid, as red-shoulders often are around humans, it remained on the branch for a series of photographs before it returned to its business of plucking burrowing crayfish from the trail below.

If you are wondering why a hawk was eating crayfish, the red-shouldered hawk’s affinity for a great variety of prey is another reason for my fascination with the species. A few summers ago, I watched a red-shoulder feeding on newts and frogs at our pond. At one point it was half-submerged in the water, trying to hop out of the mud with a green frog secured in one of its talons. Soaked and muddy, the frustrated hawk finally made it to dry ground with its catch.

Although the red-shouldered hawk doesn’t have the dazzling songbird acquisition skills of the Cooper’s hawk, it will take birds from the ground when the opportunity arises. Last winter, I watched a red-shoulder as it sat in a cedar tree in our front yard, glaring at a flock of grackles beneath our bird feeder. Finally, it swooped down and made a half-hearted attempt at one of the black birds, not even coming close to a kill. I commented to my wife that the poor hawk should be hunting voles if it didn’t expect to go to bed hungry. About five minutes later, we made another check out the window to find the same individual tearing the feathers off an unfortunate grackle!

As much as I enjoy the antics of the red-shouldered hawk, I’m also impressed by its beauty. Its barred chest is similar in color to that of a robin and its shoulders are reddish-orange, hence the name. Note the rusty-colored shoulders of the individual in the featured photograph. I captured the image as the hawk was descending on a vole at Shaw Nature Reserve in Franklin County.

The red-shouldered hawk can be found throughout Missouri but it is rare in the northwestern part of the state. Red-shouldered hawks build a nest of sticks high in a tree, usually close to a stream or river. If you ever get a chance to observe a nesting pair of red-shoulders, you will be amazed at the variety of food items they bring to their nestlings. I observed a nest for several weeks one spring and I watched the chicks feast on salamanders, frogs, mice, snakes, and other items I didn’t even recognize. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

—Story and photos by Danny Brown (main photo)

Visit mdc.mo.gov/node/73 to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.